RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia General Assembly acted on dozens of hotly debated bills in a final sprint before an important legislative deadline.
Tuesday was halftime for the 2023 session–the last day for the House and Senate to pass their own bills. Many are likely to meet a swift death when they cross over to the other chamber in a politically divided government.
Conflicting priorities have been on full display ahead of an election this fall that could shift the balance of power and the fate of legislation in the latter half of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s term.
Senate Democrats passed an amendment that would enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution. House Republicans notably declined to vote on legislation that would’ve banned abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions after a companion bill was rejected in the Senate.
“I would like to see a bill pass and it’s going to take having another body who is willing to pass the bills. Otherwise, they end up in Senator Lucas’ trash can,” said bill sponsor Del. Kathy Byron (R-Bedford), referring to the Democratic chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee.
That sentiment didn’t stop House Republicans from advancing smaller changes, including one requiring informed consent before an abortion, that the Senate is also likely to reject.
“Instead of going on the record on a promise you’ve been making to voters for ages, we’re going to vote on this boogie man bill so Republicans can go home to the campaign trail and say they tried to do something,” said Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville).
On Tuesday, the House also passed at least two bills impacting transgender students, including one banning biological males from competing in women’s sports from elementary school through college. Those measures have already been rejected in the Senate.
The Senate passed a bill that would provide paid sick leave for certain healthcare and grocery store workers. Democrats also approved a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) that would create a statewide paid family and medical leave program, which has been rejected repeatedly in years passed.
“I think it would be a transformational step for the Commonwealth. We have so many people who don’t have access to paid family and medical leave and they have to make difficult decisions when their parents are at the end of their lives, when they bring a baby home, when they themselves have debilitating medical issues,” Boysko said.
Byron said that the state’s recently launched private insurance plan for businesses and a government mandate is the wrong approach.
The fate of legislation that would give Petersburg a chance to approve a casino in a ballot referendum, while delaying a second vote in Richmond, is on shaky ground, despite winning a majority in the House on Tuesday. The Senate has already rejected a similar proposal and at least one “yes” vote in the House isn’t entirely sold.
“It’s possible to have casinos in both cities. I don’t want to hurt Richmond and, if we can’t fix that, I won’t vote for it if it should come back before this body,” Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) said.
Both chambers will continue hashing out bills that would impose stricter regulations on some hemp-derived products like Delta-8 and tinker with the legal definition of marijuana.
The Senate approved a bill that would allow retail sales of recreational marijuana starting in 2024 but House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott County) said his caucus is still hesitant.
“The House is more about getting these bad actors out of business. These folks that are selling to kids and actually selling marijuana and calling themselves a hemp shop. That’s where we are, we’re on divergent tracks, so we’ll se what happens,” Kilgore said.
The House and the Senate advanced legislation that supporters say will decrease electric bills, but Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) isn’t sure what the impact will be yet. She introduced a simpler bill aimed at restoring state regulatory authority that was stripped in the past.
“Overall, I’m comfortable. I think there are some questions over whether the larger bill will increase or reduce rates,” McClellan said.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate passed measures to make phone calls from prison free and automatically restore voting rights for incarcerated people upon release.
Those proposals face an uphill battle but a bill to largely ban solitary confinement has a better shot. The House recently approved a similar effort.